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Tearing it up

Michael Savage, once an angry white man who couldn't get the job he wanted, is now a voice of ultraconservatism. His popular radio talk show can be nasty and politically incorrect. Tough.

March 07, 2003|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — Operating from his private radio studio on the 15th story of a San Francisco luxury apartment building, Michael Savage, host of the nationally syndicated "Savage Nation" talk show, is on a tear. A scandal at the Air Force Academy was in the news; several female cadets had complained of sexual harassment, including an alleged rape.

Savage, leaning into the microphone, decides to blame the victim, who said she had been drinking with her male classmates and playing strip poker when the incident occurred.

"If a girl gets drunk and plays strip poker with high-testosterone guys, what does she expect is going to happen," Savage rages, breaking into a mocking falsetto. "My gawd, I was raped."

In Savage's opinion, that scandal and the earlier Tailhook incident involving Navy pilots, is "all part of the antimilitary strategy of the far left." By desexualizing fighting men, Savage rails, the left is neutering America, sapping the country's vitality on the eve of what he sees as a looming war against "Islamo fascism."

This is typical Savage style. Take a current issue, mine it for possible political correctness, and recast it as a left-wing conspiracy. It is a formula that works.

After an earlier career as a writer of homeopathic medicine and folk-remedy books, Savage has emerged as one of the hottest radio hosts in America, reaching 6 million listeners in a network of more than 300 stations nationwide, including KPLS-AM (830) in Los Angeles. His book, also called "Savage Nation," has been atop the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.

MSNBC has hired him to host his own live TV show, which is to be seen for the first time Saturday. That news sparked an immediate wave of protest, led by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the National Organization for Women and the liberal media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

In the past, the GLAAD has blasted Laura Schlessinger and the rap superstar Eminem for what it calls their homophobia. In 2000, the alliance targeted Schlessinger's plans for a TV talk show and launched a high-profile protest that culminated in the cancellation of her short-lived show.

GLAAD spokeswoman Cathy Renna says Savage -- who peppers his radio commentary with terms such as "cripples" "mental defectives" and "perverts" -- represents a troubling trend for a national network like MSNBC, which purports to be a 24-hour news channel but is changing some aspects of its programming to compete better with a top-rated network like the Fox News Channel, which is unabashedly political. Besides Savage, MSNBC has also created shows recently for former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and former Republican Congressmen Dick Armey and Joe Scarborough.

"The key issue," said Renna, "is the extremism and the name-calling. There is a journalistic standard that needs to be upheld here. There is a fundamental difference between political debate and a person who calls people names."

Savage claims to have many gay and lesbian listeners. "On a sexual level I'm a libertarian," he said. "I care about national identity but sexual identity isn't my business." In what he described as a sign of his tolerance, Savage said he hired a "nice big strapping lesbian" as his personal security guard.

In its push to get the Savage TV show canceled, the GLAAD Web site (www.glaad.org) features audio clips of what the group considers offensive Savage on-air comments.

So far, at least, MSNBC is not budging. "We are encouraging people to watch the show before they make any judgments," said Alan Winnikoff, vice president, corporate communications.

Savage, meanwhile, is furious, trashing his opponents on his radio show. "They are making me sound worse than Saddam Hussein," he bellowed in a recent interview. "They have more sympathy for Saddam than they do for me. They send inspectors into Iraq but they won't let me disarm."

All this from a base in San Francisco, one of the last great bastions of the American left and undisputed pillar of P.C. According to the Arbitron ratings, Savage is the leading afternoon drive-time talk show host in the Bay Area, averaging more than 226,000 listeners a week. Clearly, he has tapped into a long-neglected niche.

In fact, some contend that Savage's success here has a lot to do with the desperation of conservatives in the Bay Area, who have seen Republican registration dip to an all-time low. In the recent governor's race, the GOP was outpolled by the Green Party. "Republicans have a very rough time here," admitted Arthur Bruzzone, a longtime San Francisco Republican Party leader. "We are under siege and so we have to be stronger. I think that is why Michael Savage has been so successful and so unrestrained. Savage has great style, like Lenny Bruce only much, much angrier."

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